Saturday, June 25, 2011

New Media Isn't New Anymore, But It's Definitely Different

I can't believe it's been several weeks since I posted.  Some periods in our lives are like that.  We get really busy and time flies by.  Technology is definitely changing the pace of our lives, including how we use media.  It's an impact that all of us in the entertainment business need to understand.

I went to a great program this week at the Screen Actors Guild.  It was a discussion of the New Media business, how people are starting to make real money at it and where it's going.  The first point the panel made is that there is no longer a "New Media" business -- it is just the "Media" business.  Online and mobile content are important sources of entertainment and information for a huge portion of the population.  It's not the fringe anymore, it's the mainstream.

What do content creators need to know in order to successfully participate?  Cindi Rice of Epic Level Entertainment, a very sharp digital media producer, pointed out that the ideal length for an online program now seems to be between 2 and 6 minutes.  This is a very revealing and key piece of information.  In the online media environment, why is the length of a story so much shorter than the 90 minutes we spend in a theater, or the 30 to 60 minutes of a television program?

First, the Internet is a vast universe of content with no real limits, and it's expanding at a mind-boggling pace. Ready for this statistic?  There are now 48 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute.  Read that again and think about it.  That is only one website (albeit the largest), and that is every minute.  For all purposes, all of us now have an endless number of online media choices.  We could watch videos 24 hours per day, and we'd only see 1/2880 of what is placed on YouTube.  For all intents and purposes, the choices are infinite.

When you are at the world's biggest buffet, you take smaller portions of each dish because you want to try some of everything before you get filled up.  A bite of this, a taste of that.  That is what the online media environment is like -- people only have so much time, and there are an infinite number of choices.  Given that paradigm, it's an achievement to hold anyone's attention for even 2 to 6 minutes.

Another reason that online stories are shorter might be the way we use digital media.  For many of us, digital media is not really something we do so much as something to fill time between the things we do.  It's the halftime show.  It's the master of ceremonies making a couple jokes before he brings up the next act.  It's like the previews before the movie or the funny ads in between acts of a TV show.  Digital media gives us little bits of entertainment and information that keep us energized before we leave for work or head out to that next appointment.  When you look at it like that, a 2 to 6 minute story is just about the right length.  2 or 3 of those is a nice coffee break, and then it's back to work.

Admittedly, that is the perspective of someone who is older than the typical YouTube user.  I asked my 16-year old son about his online watching habits.  It is a little more of a real activity for him.  He likes to stay abreast of certain video series that he is following.  But he doesn't want to spend more than a few minutes on any one video because he wants to get on to the others.  If he really likes something, he'll go back and watch it again -- maybe several times.  Younger media consumers are perhaps simply becoming used to a faster pace.  They take their entertainment a bite at a time instead of by the plateful.

As content creators, what does this mean for us?  Everyone still likes a good story, but each medium is appropriate for its own type of story.  A complex story should be told in a novel or a film.  A nice three-act story works in a play or a TV show.  In the digital realm, it's all about one good, fast act.  Set it up, deliver the punchline and move on.

As Marshall McLuhan noted so many years ago. the medium is still the message.  And when the medium is digital, that message should be about 2 to 6 minutes long.